Female Managers Struggle To Break the Glass Ceiling

The Wall Street Journal

Dow Jones Newswires

Thirty-two years ago, Pat Chapman-Pincher was excelling in her first job and applied to become a management trainee. Her company turned her down and was quite open about the fact that she was being rejected because she was a woman.

“We went around in circles,” recalls Ms. Chapman-Pincher, now senior vice president, global accounts, at WorldCom Inc. “They said no. I said I was leaving. They said they wanted me to stay and I replied, ‘Put me on your management trainee team.’ They said no again. Eventually I left to join IBM, which did offer management training for women.”

It’s hard to imagine such a situation in most large European companies these days. With employment at record levels in most of the industrialized world, multinational companies have become increasingly aware that ignoring half of their potential talent pool is a losing strategy.

Yet for every Marjorie Scardino — the chief executive of Pearson PLC — there are hundreds of female middle-level mangers who haven’t been able to break the so-called glass ceiling, which prevents women from moving into upper management even as it permits those opportunities to be seen clearly. “Even as women have made enormous advances … they are still a small share of all top-level corporate jobs,” says Saskia Sassen, professor of political economy at the London School of Economics.

The venture-capital field is even worse off, according to Lucy Marcus, founder and managing director of U.K.-based Marcus Venture Consulting Ltd. “I can count the number of senior women venture capitalists in Europe without running out of fingers and toes,” she says, “It’s not uncommon that I am the only woman in a room of venture capitalists and the majority of our clients looking for venture-capital services are indeed men.”

Will the changes sweeping business as a result of globalization, pan-European consolidation and new technologies really help women to become more successful in reaching the top ranks? On balance, female business leaders seem to think so.

First, consolidation and globalization are radically changing management styles in ways that could benefit women employees. For instance, there is growing demand for so-called soft skills such as communication ability, worker sensitivity and emotional intelligence — qualities traditionally associated with women.

“Stereotypical communication skills are becoming more important,” says Esther Dyson, chairman of EDventure Holdings Inc. and a well-known commentator on the tech industry in the U.S. For example, when business is moving at a faster pace, people appreciate candor more than ever, she says. “Women are seen as more straightforward. It’s a dreadful stereotype but women say ‘Let’s be practical, let’s fix the problem. Let’s not pretend there isn’t one,’ “

This perceived frankness is in high demand in a globalized, knowledge-based society. For example, financial-services companies are starting to find out that many customers prefer to deal with female investment advisers, whom they see as more trustworthy.

As companies merge and extend their geographic reach, other communication skills such as consensus-building and the ability to relate to people of different backgrounds and cultures have also become more important. Another highly valued trait: willingness to learn from other people’s methods, says Prof. Sassen.

“The tough, know-it-all, know-it-best, very male manager is … far less attractive and effective today,” she says. “This is a rather different way of doing international business and it has opened many opportunities for women.”

Women may benefit from the growing importance of business functions such as branding, marketing and customer service. These jobs have traditionally attracted women, apparently because they demand high communication and empathy skills.

“In the old world [where] there were islands of companies, customer loyalty was higher. Now global companies are finding branding is crucial,” says Maria Marced, a general manager at Intel Corp. As the importance of these business functions grows, so should the careers of women in these jobs.

Technology has also started to have both direct and indirect influences on the position of women in business. “The Internet and other technologies have changed the balance of power,” says Ms. Dyson. Since men traditionally have held the reins of corporate power, any change is likely to work in women’s favor, she says.

One obvious sign of this is the growing number of European high-tech firms run by women, such as Ireland’s SoftCo, which was co-founded and run by Susan Spence.

“As information technology expands the chances for small entrepreneurial firms, women are gaining a foothold in various economic sectors that used to be predominantly male, such as financial services,” says Ms. Marcus. “As traditional firms begin to incorporate and partner with some of the new firms, I think we’ll see a faster pace of change in the advancement of women in the traditional sectors.”

Technology also helps in a practical sense by enabling more flexible working methods, the most obvious example being telecommuting. “Companies are now a bit more nervous about their ability to recruit and retain people. They are looking for flexible working ways for their employees and new technologies allow this,” says Ms. Marced of Intel. Since “a lack of flexibility has been an issue for women hoping to get better integrated in working life,” this practical shift could yet prove to be one of the most significant changes for women in work, she argues.

Of course, none of this guarantees an immediate shattering of the glass ceiling. While women may now have better prospects than before in highly global sectors and at small entrepreneurial firms, they may find other sectors less promising in terms of advancement to the top jobs for some time to come, says Prof. Sassen. In Europe, for example, regional manufacturing and retailing companies are seen as less receptive to change.

Even in international businesses, women won’t find the right opportunities opening up for them unless they learn to network effectively, says Ms. Marcus. “Reputation and relationships are very important when it comes to things like nonexecutive directorships. Women have to learn to develop this,” says Ms. Marcus, who has also founded High Tech Women, a London-based organization that seeks to enable women to network more effectively. Her ambition now is to see “more women speaking, writing and sitting on boards,” she says.

Meanwhile, changing management styles are opening the door for a new breed of leader, both male and female. “Many women managers at present are basically like the typical old-style male manager and these styles aren’t what is in demand in many of the globalized sectors,” says Prof. Sassen.

For example, managers will have to learn to become more dynamic decision makers, keeping in step with a faster pace of change in business. “There is no difference between what women should do and what people should do. … The new rules are to implement, not just think, to be innovative and creative,” says EDventure’s Ms. Dyson. “There are common prejudices but overall the challenge is how to be more effective in business. None of these things are magic.”

If growing numbers of women do find themselves in the upper echelons of companies, working 18-hour days will be as punishing for them as it is for their male counterparts. Indeed, the American propensity for working all the time is unlikely to have much appeal in Europe.

“One has to be cautious about the U.S. situation,” says Christine Morin-Postel, senior vice president at Suez-Lyonnaise des Eaux. “Equal opportunities are there but in some ways I have detected that some women in the U.S. have paid a high price in their private life to achieve that. I don’t feel that the leading women in Europe are ready to pay that price.”

Adds Ms. Dyson: “Who wants that kind of job? Is your goal really to be senior vice president or … to do something in particular in your life?”


1 March 2001

In the Press Archive